Live album recorded in Chicago emphasizes gritty, intense side of Wilco

By Jenna Telesca

Excitement about a new album is a feeling I haven’t felt for a while. When I found myself clutching Wilco’s new live album encased in plastic, however, I got the familiar rush. I had that thrilling feeling that this was going to be good. I wasn’t disappointed.

The cover of Wilco’s new live album depicts frontman Jeff Tweedy simply standing in front of a microphone and playing guitar. His head and everything around him is abstracted by the shining overhead lights of a stage. The cover art is very much like the album itself. It’s the same old Wilco, now transformed by the lights of performance. With this live album, Wilco escapes the clean, smooth nature of their studio recordings and provides a gritty edge to their work that is much more interesting than all the studio bullshit. Additionally, Kicking Television, a two-CD album, was recorded at none other than Chicago’s Vic Theater last May.

Long hailed as a true live band, it’s surprising that Wilco hadn’t come out with a live album prior to their fifth studio album. Kicking Television does not dally with band-members’ long narratives about the origins of their songs, but celebrates a talented band that came to entertain their fans and play a good show. The album shows how the band feeds on the energy of the crowd, which amplifies their own playing enthusiasm. Wilco likes playing for their fans—you can hear that. This love is apparent in the soul in Jeff Tweedy’s voice, the emphatic pounding of the drums and the heart-stopping improv solos throughout the recording.

In these 23 songs, Wilco provides us with a mixture of soft songs and loud rock ’n’ roll. “Kicking Television,” the last song on the first disc, starts out aggressively, pounding out a complicated and beautiful synthesis of a band that knows each other and knows how to play well. It is so good that it leaves me desperate for more, like a junky needing a fix. The songs are played in an order so that one lures you into the next. “Via Chicago,” the first song on the second disc, slowly draws me in, but creates an intense tension with the use of dissonance and guitar pedals in the middle of the song that is both uncomfortable and exhilarating. The disc then brings the listener to the light airy beginning of “Hummingbird,” which imitates the fluttering of the bird and contrasts nicely with Tweedy’s heavy voice. The crowd goes crazy during this song—I can’t blame them.

The mixture of heavy and soft tones, the contrast between intensity and lightness, and the genius of Wilco are evident in this album. Sometimes relying on a Bob Dylan-esque momentum and Bono belting, Kicking Television is an epic album that, instead of focusing on one specific feeling, plays on the layering and manipulating of all of the emotions. The antiseptic studio album, stripped of sweat. is tossed out the door; dirty and alive, Kicking Television lays it all on the line and delivers.